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Mystic Isles : Three Wind-swept, Romantic Outposts of Britain and Ireland

June 28, 1992|LISA MARLOWE | Marlowe is a Malibu-based free-lance writer

INDISFARNE, England — It was the cold that woke me at dawn, a creeping damp that had seeped straight through my bones in the dead of night. Mr. Ward, the proprietor of The Manor House, had sworn faithfully to turn on the central heating (Yes, I knew it was the middle of June. Did he know my "four-poster suite" had the ambience of a crypt?) But the promised warmth never arrived.

In the gray morning light, I could gaze from my high windows down to the ruined priory below, with its crumbling remnants of Norman arches, deep red in color and open to the elements. Beyond this, a field of sheep struggled to their feet in the tall grass, and at the edge of the land, a little harbor kissed the sea. The lobstermen were just pulling out to set their traps for the day's catch.

Lindisfarne, stretching off the Northumbrian coast of England near Berwick upon Tweed, is only cut off as an island when high tide washes over the two-mile spit of sand that connects it with the mainland. (In that regard it's not unlike its more famous counterpart in France, the island of Mont St. Michel.)

At this quiet hour last summer in June, the island was still swathed in a nocturnal, unmoving fog, yet the turrets of its most famous landmark, a medieval castle at the water's edge, reached out of the gloom like fingers pointing toward heaven. When glimpsed from the mainland A1 road on a cloudless day when the tide is in, the isle and its castle are a bewitching sight, a Sleeping Beauty vision mirrored in an endless ocean.

Below the castle, the rest of the isle exists much as it always has: Seven little village shops sell vegetables, candy, maps, a few souvenirs. No less than three pubs serve locals and interlopers alike, who stand elbow-to-elbow at the Castle, the Northumberland Arms or the Crown and Anchor, tossing darts and downing pints of ale. Fishermen, sheep farmers and visitors all go for the local crab, lobster and plaice fillets.

Mention the name Lindisfarne to many British people and you'll get a puzzled look. One of the three Farne Islands lying 300 miles north of London near the Scottish border, this North Sea isle may ring a bell, but it isn't up there with Stratford upon Avon or the Cotswolds in your typical tour books.

Despite a few shining moments in the public eye--director Roman Polanski used the island as a setting for his filmed version of "Macbeth" and writer Gordon Honeycombe's novel "Dragon Under the Hill" vividly depicts the present-day village--Lindisfarne remains remote and aloof, geographically and philosophically removed from today's England. There are only 150 inhabitants left, no police force and very little in the way of divertissements . At low tide, the village is only a few minute's drive from the mainland via the paved, sand-bordered causeway, but most motoring tourists sadly pass right by this archetype of an England of 30 years ago.

No matter. To reach this Holy Island, so dubbed by pious Roman Catholic monks who settled here centuries ago, one must take a time trip and a history lesson--back to an era of Viking conquests, saints and sinners, and the very roots of British Christianity itself.

More than 50,000 visitors come every year, in search of just such cultural discoveries. They drop by at low tide for a quickie pilgrimage to the graves of St. Aidan and St. Cuthbert, two Celtic missionaries who, from AD 698 to 721, inspired their followers to create the regal Lindisfarne Gospels, the earliest fully-illuminated English book known. (The Gospels hold a special place in the British Museum in London, but reasonably impressive facsimiles rest comfortably within the walls of little St. Mary's, Lindisfarne's 13th-Century church, at the edge of the village next to the priory.)

Like its northern neighbor, Scotland, Holy Island was savagely pillaged by the Danes late in the 8th Century. If by some chance the devout but hapless monks managed to survive outright slaughter, they were driven naked into the freezing fog. After enduring my June night of shivers, I can quite comprehend their reasons for a hasty decampment. Their monastery lay abandoned for 200 years, after which the island again became a center for monastic life. That is, until the mid-16th Century, when all the king's horses and all the king's men were sent by the Crown to build the first Lindisfarne castle as a garrison in case the Scots decided to invade. By now, they were on opposite teams.

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